Religion and War

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Religion and War. Religion has played many, often contradictory, roles in the history of American warfare. With the conquistadors came Roman Catholic priests and brothers to bless, or challenge, Spanish attacks upon indigenous peoples. Two of the most notable of those clerics based enduring theoretical contributions on their knowledge of colonial warfare: the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474–1566) concerning the humanity of Native Americans, and his fellow Dominican Francisco de Vitoria (1483–1546) concerning the ethics of international relations. Warfare between the first generation of English settlers and Native Americans brought out the worst and the best in the colonists' religious leaders. The much respected first minister of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Thomas Shepard, could yet herald “the divine slaughter of the Indians at the Hand of the English” after battle with the Pequots of Connecticut in 1637; the Rev. John Eliot of Roxbury, Massachusetts, experienced his finest hour as “apostle to the Indians” in defending his converts from reprisals after King Philip's War (1675–76). During the eighteenth century, Moravian Brethren carried out humanitarian missionary work in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Ohio Territory, where they repeatedly tried to shield their converts (usually pacifists like themselves) from the ravages of war.

Deep, if ambiguous, connections between war and religion continue to the present day. Religious values supported American ideology in the Cold War and offered President Ronald Reagan a vocabulary to define the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” Religious motives often fueled opposition to the Vietnam War, as with the Baptist senator from Oregon, Mark Hatfield, or the efforts of the Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, the Jewish rabbi Abraham Heschel, and the Lutheran minister Richard John Neuhaus, who in 1965 founded Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. On the other side, religious motives also led Francis Cardinal Spellman, Catholic archbishop of New York, and the Protestant evangelist Billy Graham to support the war. In the Persian Gulf War, President George Bush consulted the leaders of his own Episcopal Church and invited his longtime friend, Billy Graham, to the White House the night before hostilities commenced. The Episcopalian bishops leaned against considering the conflict a “just war”; Graham offered general support.

Religion Affecting Warfare.

The most visible connection between war and religion in American history is the intensification of commitment that religious faith brought to combatants and the promoters of war. This link was a particular bequest of the Anglo‐French wars that began in 1689 and ended only with the final defeat of Napoleon. As Linda Colley argues (1992), warfare with France raised the Protestant identity of the British empire to remarkable salience. During King George's War (1744–48) and the French and Indian War (1754–63), colonists from Massachusetts (like the Congregationalist Thomas Prince) to Virginia (like the Presbyterian Samuel Davies) joined their compatriots across the Atlantic in picturing the military struggle as an apocalyptic contest between the universal truth of Protestantism and the corrupt tyranny of Catholicism. With such preparation, it was a relatively easy matter for patriots in the 1770s to depict the struggle for American independence as, in the words of the Presbyterian Abraham Keteltas, “the cause of heaven against hell—of the kind Parent of the universe against the prince of darkness” (God Arising and Pleading His People's Cause, 1777). Loyalists were usually somewhat more restrained in rhetoric, but colonial Anglicans like Charles Inglis of New York and Jonathan Boucher of Maryland were just as convinced that their cause was the cause of God. In hundreds of sermons during the Revolutionary War, Americans became skilled at interpreting biblical passages as types, or anticipations, of realities fulfilled on contemporary fields of battle.

Religious convictions supported political ideology in all major national conflicts through World War I. During the War of 1812, New England Congregationalist ministers could show how Scripture called warmaking into question, while their Protestant confreres in southern and western states could show just the reverse. Before the Civil War, Protestants of both the North and the South sanctified sectional controversy with theological rhetoric; during the war itself, a host of rhetorically accomplished ministers, led by Henry Ward Beecher in the North and Robert Lewis Dabney in the South, grounded their respective causes in universal scriptural imperatives. In World War I, fundamentalists and modernists alike linked German aggression to religious error. According to the revivalist Billy Sunday, “If you turn hell upside down, you will find ‘Made in Germany’ stamped on the bottom.” By comparison with these earlier conflicts, the religious support for World War II was muted. In all American wars, the practice of “civil religion,” especially when presidents employ a general religious vocabulary to reassure or inspire their fellow Americans, has always flourished.

Much less frequently, the universal values of religion have worked against rather than for the military purposes of a particular conflict. During the Revolutionary War, the “father of American Lutheranism,” Henry Melchior Mühlenberg, denounced the armies of both sides for sacrificing Christian principle to military expediency. At the start of the Civil War, the Northern Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge was called a heretic for suggesting that the formation of the Confederacy was not sufficient ground for expelling Southern Presbyterians from the denomination. At the end of that same war, an anonymous correspondent to a Jewish periodical, The Occident, generated a storm of controversy among his fellow religionists when he wrote that, although Abraham Lincoln was a worthy president, he hardly deserved to be compared with Moses as several rabbinical memorials had recently done.

Beyond acting to sanction or check national bellicosity, religion has frequently influenced strategy and policy. In early 1776, the Continental Congress sent two Roman Catholic cousins, John Carroll and Charles Carroll, with Benjamin Franklin on a mission to Montréal to persuade the Catholic Québecois to join the revolt. The effort failed, in large part because Catholics there were satisfied with the provisions of Britain's Quebec Act (1774), which guaranteed certain traditional privileges to their church. During World War I, the presence in America of both Protestants and Catholics of German stock complicated Woodrow Wilson's diplomatic maneuvering. The international humanitarianism that determined Wilson's war aims originated in nineteenth‐century liberal Calvinism.

Religious influences on the direct experiences of war have often featured the ministry of chaplains. From 1775, when the Continental Congress authorized chaplains for the army and the navy, through the Civil War, when the chaplaincy began to look like a profession, to World War II, when the four army chaplains (two Protestants, one Catholic, and one Jew) who sacrificed their lives to save servicemen at the sinking of the Dorchester in February 1943 inspired the nation, and finally to the efficient mobilization of the chaplaincy in the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, chaplains have largely avoided the glare of publicity while offering a wide range of spiritual and humane assistance to troops on active duty. During the Civil War, an unusually intense series of revivals spread through the camps of both Northern and Southern armies. According to many participants, these revivals acted as an antidote to dissipation, and—especially in Southern armies during the last eighteen months of the war—to despair.

Warfare Affecting Religion.

The impact of war on American religion has, if anything, exceeded the effects of religion on war. The American Revolution, and the revolution in social values it accelerated, crippled the Episcopal Church and substantially hindered the Congregationalists, the two major denominations in colonial America; Methodists, Baptists, and indigenous denominations soon prevailed as the nation's most numerous churches. Insofar as the Revolution lay behind the Constitution and its First Amendment guaranteeing religious freedom, that war was also responsible, however inadvertently, for opening up the United States to peaceful settlement by non‐English‐speaking Protestants, non‐Protestant Christians (especially Roman Catholics), non‐Christian adherents of other religions, and finally the nonreligious.

The long‐term religious effects of the Civil War were different. As two authors, George M. Frederickson (1965) and Anne C. Rose (1992), have shown, disillusionment with traditional Protestant faiths and an openness to skepticism grew rapidly among Northern intellectuals as a result of the war. The war's failure to usher in the millennium, as many on both sides had hoped, also contributed to the expansion of otherworldly forms of pietism where the emphasis shifted from the Christianization of society to a fascination with speculative prophecy or a concentration on private as opposed to public morality.

World War I played a direct role in fomenting the fundamentalist‐modernist controversies of the 1920s. George Marsden (1980) has demonstrated that the intensity of that war mobilized populist revivalists who felt that a crisis had been reached in the progress of Christian civilization as well as in the integrity of the Protestant churches. In response, they mounted a defense of endangered “fundamentals,” eliciting outrage from moderates and liberals who hardly appreciated being lumped with the kaiser.

Religious responses to warfare have created institutions of enduring significance. For the profession of nursing, still in the nineteenth century very much a religious vocation for Protestants and Catholics, the Civil War provided a decisive impetus. During World War I, American Roman Catholics founded their first permanent national organization, the National Catholic War Council. This institution later became the National Catholic Welfare Conference (1922–66), which in turn made way for the two federal structures of Catholic organization that exist today, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference. For more sectarian and traditional Protestants, World War II hastened the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals (1943) by adding a concern for representation in the chaplaincy to long‐standing disquiet with the theological drift of the more ecumenical Federal Council of Churches. More broadly, the massive commitment of American military forces around the world led to the establishment of a host of U.S.‐based mission and relief agencies.

Because it tends to inflame passions and demand action, warfare only occasionally deepens theological perspective. In the aftermath of World War I, and sometimes as an act of expiation for jingoism, several important religious thinkers, including the Protestant Harry Emerson Fosdick and the Catholic Dorothy Day, published provocative arguments against warfare in any of its modern forms. Another important voice won to virtual pacifism in the wake of World War I was Reinhold Niebuhr; he would, however, return to a defense of Just War theory because of the Fascist threats of World War II and the anti‐Communist crusades thereafter. Reactions to the Holocaust have produced painful theological reflection for Jews and many others. Among Roman Catholics, the experience of both bloody fighting and Cold War nuclear deterrence led to a concentration of sophisticated ethical reasoning that culminated in the Bishops' Pastoral Letter on War and Peace of 1983. That document's acceptance of nonviolence on a par with traditional “just war” claims was controversial among Catholics, in the same way that, among Protestants, the pacifism of John Howard Yoder and careful defense of just war from Paul Ramsey and James T. Johnson were controversial. What these proposals shared was serious ethical reasoning, first‐level theology, and intense analysis of twentieth‐century warfare.

The most notable instance of American warfare deepening theology, however, comes not from an academic theologian or a synod of bishops, but from the sixteenth president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln, who was never a church member, did not espouse traditional Christian faith; yet during the Civil War, his thought grew in biblical depth until, at his second inaugural address in March 1865, he could articulate a more sublime trust in divine providence, and a more charitable attitude to his foes, than virtually any other public figure of his day.

Religious Rejection of War.

Rejection of warfare also enjoys a long American history. During the Revolutionary War, neutralism prevailed among New England immigrants in Nova Scotia because the revivals of Henry Alline created what amounted to a pietist pacifism. In the thirteen mainland colonies, Mennonites, German Brethren, some Moravians, and numerous Quakers remained faithful to their pacifist principles, despite fines, imprisonment, and confiscation of property. What would later be called “selective conscientious objection” was also at work among some Methodists, Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Baptists, who concluded that neither patriots nor loyalists convincingly demonstrated the necessity for conflict. A similar phenomenon occurred among some Reformed Presbyterians and Calvinist Baptists in the American South during the Civil War.

The most prominent voices raised against warfare in American history have come from the historically pacifist denominations. World War I proved a particular trial to Mennonites, Quakers, and the German Brethren, since it combined a universal draft with inflamed public sentiment. Members of newer American denominations, including Seventh‐Day Adventists and some Pentecostals, also refused induction and support of the war effort in this same conflict. During World War II, the Selective Service System granted conscientious objection to military service from members of the historic peace churches, but dealt more harshly with newer religious bodies. Members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who refused both to register for the draft and to swear allegiance to the United States, met with especially severe reprisals. Definite enumerations are elusive, but as many as three‐fourths of the perhaps 6,000 Americans imprisoned for failing to register for the draft or report for military service were Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Vietnam War, which began without the clear‐cut call to arms that the attack on Pearl Harbor provided for World War II, and which occurred during a period of cultural unrest, produced much religiously grounded opposition to warfare. Yet questions about the legality of this particular war, a resurgence of selective conscientious objection, and arguments for the recognition of conscientious objection not based on religion, at once magnified public debate concerning the morality of war and obscured specifically religious considerations.

Since the Vietnam period, historians have joined other academics in documenting the breadth and depth of antiwar sentiment in American history. Nonetheless, religious support for warfare, or the accommodation of religious beliefs to the exigencies of war, has been much more common in American history than religiously inspired rejection of war.
[See also Aggression and Violence; Berrigan, Daniel and Philip; Militarism and Antimilitarism; Patriotism; Peace and Antiwar Movements; Religion in the Military; Vietnam Antiwar Movement.]


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Mark A. Noll

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Religion and War